Which Renovations Provide the Best Payback?

Before we get to the favorite materials and tools, if you're contemplating a major remodeling project prior to selling your home, you might want to know how much of your investment you can expect to recoup. If you're thinking of remodeling to accommodate family needs, the percent return on investment may tell you whether it makes more sense to remodel, or to sell, and buy a home that already has the features you're thinking of adding. Remodeling Magazine has done surveys to determine the cost vs. value of typical remodeling projects; they have posted a comparison of New England vs National data on this web page.

Sources - Favorite materials, tools, and sources

Some people actually do get to their own Honey Do Lists – but sometimes don’t know where to go for good materials, or wish they had better tools.  This page may help with sources for supplies and tools.  Mouse over the bold black entries for links to suppliers and products.

Bath & kitchen materials suppliers:

My favorite tile supplier in the region is Tile Gallery - 522 Amherst St #13, Nashua, NH - (603) 577-8800. These folks are extremely knowledgeable and amazingly helpful. If you want to do a tile job yourself, you will be able to find all the materials you need, including tile ranging from plain and simple to exotic, as well as all the information you will need, to do the job completely. If you want to choose tile for a job that a contractor will do for you, this is a great source - they have beautiful tile at excellent prices. If you're re-doing your kitchen or bath, they can help you achieve an "up to date" look.

If you're replacing your shower curtain or door, Nashua Glass (110 Chestnut St, Nashua, NH 03060 - 603-882-0648) does a great job, and at a reasonable price.

If you're replacing your own plumbing fixtures, Faucet Depot has about the best prices you will find either online or in box stores - they have a better selection than the big box stores. 

If you have a 1970's-1980's vanity top, tub or shower enclosure that's in good shape, but that is a "dated" color, we've gotten excellent reviews on Resurface Doctors in Nashua NH. 

If you're replacing bathroom vanities, some of the best deals can be found at VanityWorld, which has a showroom in Burlington (among others). Unfortunately, the web site doesn't use brand info, and is otherwise difficult to navigate. But some of my clients have found really superb deals there.

If you're replacing your toilet, and would like to see a wide range of mfrs and models, FW Webb has three showrooms within 30 miles of Acton.  We like the one in Nashua NH; the variety is excellent, and the prices are good.  If you're still in the research phase, we recommend looking at http://www.consumersearch.com/toilets and http://www.toiletsthatwork.com. The lowest-price supplier we've found online is www.faucet.com.

Batteries – rebuilders:

If you have a beloved cordless tool that is now useless because its battery won't hold a charge and you can't get replacement batteries, don't toss it! Batteries Plus, 522 Amherst Street, Nashua NH - (603) 883-5060 will rebuild any kind of battery you want. They also have a huge variety of common batteries in stock.


Gloves – I like these non-latex, non-allergenic gloves.  MicroFlex Supreno SE gloves are thin enough to let me do projects that require sensitivity in my fingers, yet they’re durable and protect my hands.  Amazon seems to have the lowest prices for these.

Trash bags – This might sound silly, but good trash bags make a big difference.  I learned about these years ago when I worked as a facility manager, and visited an industrial supplier.  The vendor compared all the plastics they offered, and explained the superiority of high density plastic.  The trash bags commonly available in stores are soft, and tear very easily.  High density plastic bags are much less likely to tear, and spill, when cleaning up from a project.  My favorite size is 45 Gal (lg) 16 micron high density; and here's the link to my favorite source.

Countertops – suppliers and materials:

Countertop supplier – for natural materials, I like Cutting Edge Marble and Granite - 25 Mohawk Dr, Leominster, MA  (978) 537-2944. 

They use C&C machinery with digitized patterns, which gives them a clean and accurate cutout for sinks and joints, with no imperfections – your sink will fit perfectly if they make your countertop.

The majority of the cost of natural material countertops is the hand work involved in the fitting of the sink and finishing of the edges.  The hand tools used to shape the edge are slid along the surface of the granite, producing a fine dust that scratches the surface of the finished stone.  According to John, the installers wax the surface; when the wax wears off, you see the scratches.  Using C&C machinery means that both the fitting and the surface are perfect.  It will cost more, because the C&C machinery is expensive– but you’ll have a perfect job.

Other suppliers that have been recommended to us with glowing reviews are RE Marble & Granite (Temple, NH),  and Eco Stoneworks (Manchester, NH). 

Countertop material options

Natural stone (granite, marble, slate) – consider a “honed” surface instead of a polished surface.  Countertops with a glossy finish have an applied epoxy coating, which is subject to wear over time; they scratch and chip.  A honed surface has a matte finish, and will “weather” better, over time, than a glossy surface.

Slate – this is seldom seen, except for reproduction antique applications where the object is to create the look of an antique kitchen, with a modern feel.  Slate isn’t the most expensive stone, but the cost of working and finishing it make it a luxury material.  [It is also more brittle than granite, and chips more easily.]

Wood – IKEA makes a 25” deep Eastern European birch countertop that is relatively inexpensive.  For trimming to exact fit, see comments on FesTool’s Circular Saw.

If you decide to install wood counters, you’ll need to finish them.  My own favorite finish for wood countertops and floors is Velvit Oil, which both penetrates and leaves a thin surface film.  Apply after sanding with very fine paper, and apply 2 or 3 coats, sanding in and wiping dry each time, allowing to dry completely between coats.  This finish won’t chip (unlike epoxy), and is very easy to patch if it is scratched.  It leaves almost no residue once it’s dry.  Velvit Oil is available in some home improvement stores.  If you can't find it, contact Velvit Products (920) 722-8355, or sales@velvitproducts.com.

Solid surface materials (e.g., Corian) were all the rage in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  They’re wonderful for the “wet” section of the kitchen because they don’t deform when wet.  These materials are still available, and are still a good deal – but they will look dated when compared to the 21st century craze for granite.

The least expensive countertop material is laminate on particle board.  This can be a good choice if you’re looking for the lowest possible cost, particularly if there are no joints, sinks or faucets involved.

Favorite tool sources:

Used tools – The Tool Shed –471 Main Street Waltham, MA - 781-647-7970 (no web site).
This unassuming little store is a wonderful place to find good used tools, cheap.  I like used tools. Old, US-made tools tend to be better quality steel than new imports; the wrenches are less likely to break under pressure.  What you’ll find at the Tool Shed is usually incomplete sets of sockets or wrenches.  That’s OK, get what you need and leave the rest. Be sure to check their hours before you go – this is a little one-man shop, and the owner spends much of his time hunting for old tools.


This is my favorite source for power hand tools.  You’ll never see these in Big Box stores because they’re too expensive for the mass market.  However, I love them – they’re the best quality tools I’ve ever found.
For example,

They make a marvelous plunge cut circular saw.   This saw can be run on a track, producing absolutely crisp, clean cuts, with no splintering on either side of the material. It’s the perfect tool to use for trimming the bottom off a door.  You won’t be able to tell it’s been trimmed.  This is the tool I’d bring if you need to shorten your doors for some reason (if you’ve installed new flooring or carpets, for example). 

FesTool also makes an integrated dust pickup for their tools that really works – it allows you to work on site; all the sawdust is picked up by the tool.

Their cordless drill is the most versatile I’ve ever seen.  It has an offset head so you can drive a fastener right next to the edge of a cabinet – which is just where you almost always have to place it.  I’ve never seen this offered on any other drill.  This drill also has a right-angle head (the heads are interchangeable) that lets you get into tight spaces.   



I’ve been using McFeely’s square drive screws for years (or perhaps it’s decades).  It’s a unique product at a good price.  Square drive screws stay put – the threads don’t strip; the driver doesn’t spin out.

Here are some of my favorites. 

It’s common in home projects to need to screw two 2x4’s or 2x6’s together.  What’s usually recommended at the large hardware stores is a long screw that’s threaded its entire length.  McFeely’s offers a much better design: the ProMax, which has a much shorter portion of the screw that’s threaded; the rest, closest to the head, is a smooth shank.  The reason for this is obvious once it’s explained – it’s almost impossible to draw two 2x4’s together unless you pre-drill one of them.  Otherwise, as soon as the screw hits the second 2x4, it spins a turn or two before it starts cutting into the second piece.  If the screw is threaded all the way up, there will always be a gap between the two pieces, and the threads will prevent pulling them together.  However, with the ProMax, as you drive the screw down, the smooth shank allows the first 2x4 to be drawn tight to the second.  This saves pre-drilling, which is a huge waste of time. 

On a large project, the wasted time can add up.  I once did a job repairing an enormous deck at a house on the ocean.  The deck was made of 2x6’s, many of which needed to be replaced.  Given the harsh salt environment, I chose the Stainless ProMax – designed to weather harsh environments without rusting or staining the wood.

Another specialty product is their 3” round-head anti-corrosion screw.  You’d need it if your storm door closer is ever ripped off the door frame.  Storm door closers are often fastened just to the door frame, and the screws used are often only ¾” long.  Because these screws are so short, and go only into the frame, they are easy to tear out.  If your storm door closer has been torn off the frame, the simple fix is to replace the screw with one that anchors to the stud beneath the frame.  This 3” round-head anti-corrosion-coated screw from McFeely is what I’d use for this job; the round heads don’t snag anything, and the anti-corrosion coating assures that they don’t stain the door frame.  And of course the length assures that they stay where they are, even in high wind.

For hanging kitchen cabinets, the best fastener is McFeely’s 3” long, #10 screw with oversized head.  Done right, you can safely hang a cabinet with just four of these screws, and they will bear the weight of the cabinet and its contents.  This is an application where it’s extremely important to use high quality steel.  It’s also important to use a full 3” screw:  the screw has to go through the cabinet itself (and any standoff), through sheetrock, and finally into the stud – you want to be sure that it’s long enough to anchor securely into the stud.  Shorter screws might hold initially and then over time fail under load.  If you’re installing wall cabinets, this is a good place to be conservative, and use screws that are long enough to hold the loaded cabinet securely on the wall. 

Hardware & Fittings:

There are several local lumber yards that carry hardware and fittings; their service and support is great, and they are extremely knowledgable about the products they carry.

GV Moore Lumber - 22 West Main Street, Ayer, MA (978) 772-0900

Littleton Lumber / Concord Lumber - 55 White Street Littleton, MA. 01460 - (978) 486-9877

Moynihan Lumber, North Reading (781) 944-8500.  If you're building a deck off-season, and want parts, try Moynihan.  They carry Simpson StrongTie Deck Post Connectors and FastenMaster ThruLok Screw Bolts (which have been out only since around October 2010).  Moynihan's service is extraordinary. They realize that the quantity in inventory in the database doesn't always equal the number in the bin, and are happy to check their stock for you. 

Chainsaw parts:

Chappell Tractor Sales - 454 Route 13 South Milford, NH - (603) 673-2640

After the December 2009 ice storm, everyone had trees to clean up; my chainsaw had been idle for a few years, so I knew it probably needed some work. It felt to me as if the local service shop was 'pushing parts' so I kept looking till I found one that provided honest advice. Jeff was their lawn and garden equipment expert, and his guidance on chainsaws was unbelievably helpful. He had the parts I needed, warned me away from parts I would not need (spark plug) and should not buy (carburetor solvent), gave me exploded diagrams of the carb and the engine, and explained how to do the job. I highly recommend Chappell's if you have a Stihl chainsaw and live anywhere in north-central Mass or southern NH.  Chappell's will also do the repair work if you don't want to do it yourself.